Established in 332 BC by Alexander the Great, modern day Alexandria barely has an ancient original stone. Although it was a major trade and learning center with majestic buildings such as the lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, from the 4th century onwards, the city declined into insignificance.
A powerful earthquake in 365 AD off the coast of Greece caused a tsunami that devastated the city. Many surrounding villages and towns were wiped off the map and there is evidence that the shoreline was permanently changed by the disaster.
In 1995 archaeologists discovered the ruins of the old city off the coast of present-day Alexandria. It has been documented that slowly, but steadily, the buildings of Alexandria's royal quarter were overtaken by the sea following the tsunami. Diving tours near the Harbor to see some of the ruins can be arranged, but we gave it a miss.
The best part of our visit was to stroll along the Mediterranean and marvel at the modern and old Alexandria. It was fun to have French pastries with Turkish coffee, eat sea food, fresh fish and squeezed fruit juices. Strolling at the Souq, where Peter bought a set of chai glasses for his collection, was also an all time favorite. I am not sure the curfew is still being enforced – the markets were lively and open until past 11pm.
We were constantly greeted by hundreds of Alexandrians during our one-week stay. We are starting to feel like royalty here in Egypt as people want to take picture with us and everywhere we go we hear “Welcome to Egypt” before the usual “where are you from,” “what is your name,” and occasionally, “how old are you.” Yes, Arabs have no qualms about this taboo question in the west, which puts us in the difficult position of revealing that we are much older than we look.
From our beach front hotel near Midan Saad Zaghloul, it was easy to go everywhere. The constant fresh air from the sea was always a pleasant change from the dust in the back streets , in serious need of public works.
We visited the Patriarch Coptic Orthodox Church, founded by Mark the Evangelist, author of the second Gospel. Coptic Christians believe he arrived in Alexandria around 60 AD. He was tortured and killed in 68 AD and buried under the church he founded. Those were the days when paganism ruled. Only a few hundred years later, in 323 AD, when Constantine the Great recognized the Christian religion, and in 356 AD ordered the closing of pagan temples throughout the empire, ninety percent of Egyptians became Coptic Christians. Islamism became the new favored religion 300 years after that, when the numbers of adepts in Egypt changed again. Currently it is 90% Muslims and 10% Coptic-Christians.
In 828 AD the Venetians stole Mark Evangelist's body for the St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, but some of this body parts remain in Alexandria. I was taken to a back room to see some of his fingers behind a glass case, and also to the place where his tomb is. There were a lot of volunteers sweeping the floors and working on the grounds. We had to show our passports to enter the area and be on an escorted tour, possibly because of the recent terrorist attacks to another Coptic Church 10 kilometers away, in recent months.
The French influence in Alexandria is still very present, even though Napoleon Bonaparte was in Egypt for only three years, leaving the country in 1801, in his worst military defeat in history. With the ultimate ambition to conquer British India, on May 19, 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Egypt with 350 ships but was forced to leave three years later, defeated by the British. But the French cultural influence lingers to this day, as Napoleon brought many artists, scientists, egyptologists and scholars with him.
Western inventions were introduced to Egypt, like the printing press, ideas such as liberalism and nationalism. To modernist historians, the French arrival marks the start of the modern Middle East. Napoleon also re-developed the port, which helped to attract people from all over the world and add to the city's pluralistic charm.
To us, the best contribution from the French is the patisseries, everywhere in town. It is a double treat because the pastry shops usually have western pastries on one side (mostly French style) and the Arab ones on the other. The dozens of cafes and the horse carriages everywhere in town are also a reminder of life in Europe in the 19th century.
The Tram was built in 1860 and it is still in operation. We sat on the double deck of one as it lingered the 15 miles to the far east side of town to Montazah Palace. This palace was built in 1900 as the summer residence of the last king of Egypt, king Farouk , descendent of Mohammed Ali, the Ottoman ruler who took over Egypt after the French were defeated.
The Ottoman ruler in Egypt got the position with England's help. Its government was therefore submissive to the British Empire. Muhammad Ali and his descents became the new rulers, until 1952 when an Egyptian revolution put civilians in charge of the country. Those were times of Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, and most recently Mubarak.